What a radish teaches us about willpower

“I know what I need to be doing. I’m just not doing it.”

Raise your hand if you’ve ever said this. 

Or if you’re sure. :-) 

I hear these words on an almost daily basis as a coach, and often say them myself. We utter the phrase out of ownership - a coach or teacher or therapist helped us figure out a plan, but we haven't executed it, and so we try to saddle up to the challenge. 

As a coach, I don't want anyone to believe I'm without struggle. Working out is a mainstay for me, but that doesn't mean that every behavior change is so straightforward. 

My behavior change is writing. I know I need to sit down every day and write if I want to be successful at the craft. I just don't do it. 

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Hell I once tied myself to a chair with a pair of panty hose to force myself to write. To just sit down and do it. A half hour later, I literally had my panty hose in a knot and hadn't written a thing. 

Humans are wonderfully complex and intricate beings though, and so making lifestyle changes, while simple in concept, are much more challenging in reality. 

A few weeks ago I talked about willpower, and specifically decision fatigue. Another concept referenced in the book I've been reading (“Willpower” by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney) is ego depletion.

Some years ago in an effort to understand willpower, the co-author of the book Roy Baumeister, a research psychologist, performed a study between two groups of students. Both groups were invited into a room with a plate of warm, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, chocolate, and radishes. One group was invited to eat the chocolate or the cookies, and another group was instructed only to eat the radishes. (I'm sad in my heart for that second group..) 

Afterwards, the students were taken to another room and given insoluble geometry puzzles. The group that was allowed to eat the cookies or the chocolate typically worked on the puzzles for about 20 minutes. Those who were only allowed to eat radishes gave up on the puzzles in eight minutes. 

Eight minutes. 

The theory was that much like a muscle, willpower could be fatigued through use. The students who were denied the cookies and chocolate had used up so much willpower in resisting the treats that they had little left in the tank to work on a puzzle.

It is these concepts - of ego depletion and decision fatigue (among many other factors) that sometimes come between the original statements: 

I know what I need to be doing. I’m just not doing it. 

We assume that knowledge by itself is enough to make a behavior change. That once you’ve been armed with the right information and the plan for change, the next step is the epitome of Nike’s campaign.

You just do it. 

Not quite. 

Think about your day. Did you walk past that candy dish 17 times without taking one piece? Did you resist unleashing an epic rampage against the co-worker who condescendingly told you how to do your job? Did you avoid banging your head against the conference table when Judy went off on an un-related 20 minute tangent about her root canal at the weekly staff meeting? 

Then you come home and your husband left the toilet seat up, again, and you explode into an expletive-laced rant about sitting in toilet water in the middle of the night. (I grew up with a few brothers, so this was a familiar rant) 

Because you used up much of your willpower after a long day at work, you’ve got nothing left to put up with your spouse’s annoying little habits. And you sure as hell don't have much left to not have that bowl of ice cream. Or not eat fast food. Or force yourself to walk two miles after dinner. 

As I mentioned a few weeks ago - willpower is a limited resource. We only have so much of it for each day - one of the studies in the book referenced parole hearings and how judges were more likely to grant parole at the beginning of the day than the end - and when we've used it up, no amount of knowledge in the world will help us make a behavior change.

So what do we do?

Later this week I'll talk about strategies you can employ to help work with and around willpower to make the changes you want to make.

(Hint - avoiding procrastination is a big one.)

Be kind to yourself.